Jonah Hill landed his biggest coup yet: he costars with Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which opens on Christmas day. On Thursday, Hill spoke at Annette Insdorf’s “Reel Pieces” series at the 92Y.
Emma Tillinger, one of the producers of “The Wolf on Wall Street” said, “When Jonah Hill auditioned he blew Marty away.” It is easy to see why. In addition to his comedic skills so evident in his movies, Hill comes across as a man with integrity, intensity, and as someone you want to hug.
How did you get involved in “The Wolf of Wall Street”?
When “Moneyball” came out and I got nominated for an Academy Award. That was a very special time. A lot of opportunities came my way. I got a phone call from my agent that said, “You were on the bottom of a list of far more achieving and better actors to star opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a Martin Scorsese movie.” That was the coolest phone call I’d ever gotten.
To prepare I read the book by Jordan Belfort and the screenplay by Terence Winter. Winter is one of my heroes. He wrote a lot of “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.” If an actor once in their life reads a script and says I have to play that part and they are able to play it, that is the luckiest thing that could happen in an actor’s life. I’ve had four experiences like that: “Superbad,” “Cyrus,” “Moneyball,” and now this film.
Before anything was decided, I sat down with Leonardo DiCaprio and said, “I have to play this part so I’m sorry if you have anyone else in mind. That’s just not going to happen.”
There’s a lot of excess and intense immoral behavior, but seriously why I felt I had to play this part is because I recognized that person in society. I feel they are a lot of what’s wrong. I had to be a part of bringing that character to life and illuminating what’s wrong with that behavior, that kind of excess, valuing money over everything else and becoming obscenely wealthy. A month and a half later I was asked to meet with Scorsese. I said, “Can I audition for him, instead of just talking about the movie?” I hadn’t auditioned for a film in many years.
I went in to meet with him and I was terrified. We were in a screening room in his office and I saw a ladder. I got so hot and started sweating and thought it was because I was nervous. I asked if I could use the restroom. In the restroom I looked in the mirror and said, “Get it together.” I went back in and realized that the ladder was leading up to the air-conditioning unit, which was clearly busted. I said, “Guys, I don’t want to sound rude or imposing but is there anywhere else we can do this audition because I’m so hot.” So Scorsese is like, “You’re right, it’s so hot in here, kid.” We go to his office and do a few scenes a few times and he gave me a couple of notes.
I left and walked all the way downtown to where I was staying and said to myself, “If this is all that comes from this, this was still the greatest experience of my life. I got to act in front of my favorite director of all time. I can’t have any more expectations than this.”
They took about two months to make their decision. Every day I got a call, “They didn’t say no yet but they’re seeing another actor who is way better than you.” Finally, I was at dinner one night and my phone rang. It was Leo and he said, “I just talked to Marty and you’re the guy.”
I ran around the streets screaming. That was the beginning of the most surreal, and what continues to be the most surreal, and most exciting thing in my life so far.
What was the first Scorsese film you saw?
I was 9 when I saw “Goodfellas.” My parents were very lenient if it had to do with art. From that moment on that was my favorite film and I wanted to be a part of the movie making process. I don’t know what that says about me but it continues to be my favorite film. So you can imagine what this experience has meant to me.
I figure you’ve got to make people laugh or you’ll never get work again. What I love about Martin Scorsese and why he’s my favorite filmmaker is that his movies encompass all different feelings at once. Like in life, a moment isn’t categorized as just one feeling. In his movies, a lot happens in the same scene. Like the Joe Pesci scene in “Goodfellas” where he said, “You think I’m a clown? Do I amuse you?” because it’s very funny but it’s also terrifyingly scary.
How many takes did it take to do the scene with Leonardo DiCaprio on Quaaludes?
There were a lot of takes and we had to meet with a drug expert. Seriously. My character Donnie is a severe drug addict. Having not taken the drugs he’s addicted to — crack cocaine and Quaaludes — I had to seek guidance from someone who had experienced those feelings or I wouldn’t have authentically known how to portray them. There was this woman who was amazing. She’s a former drug addict, and now a drug counselor, and she walked me through what it would feel like to be on all of these different drugs.
Did your other roles prepare you for “The Wolf of Wall Street”?
Nothing could really prepare you for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” [Laughs]
Watch the trailer below: